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The dumpster fire that is disability services

It’s become a running joke among me and my fellow disabled students of Seattle Central: how hilariously, glaringly bad the location of the Disability Service Office is. It seems to perfectly sum up how inadequately our school provides for its disabled students, and how far it has to go. When asked what he would do about this particular ironic issue, SCC student Danny Barber said first and foremost: “I would move it onto the main first floor.” The office is only “accessible” by exiting and reentering the building from the back, or taking two separate elevators. And for those of us that require mobility aids some or all of the time, it feels like a cruel joke. “The one office that should be accessible–no matter what–should be this one, and, in a show of the latent disregard the school has always had for disabled students, they set it down a flight of stairs,” Barber says. 

In our microcosm of Seattle Central, social norms play out the same way they do in the rest of the world. Racism, sexism, homophobia–and in this case–ableism. Ableism, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities, in favour of the able-bodied. Sometimes, this favour can look like inclusion and accessibility but smell like bullshit, in the case of the location of the Disablility Services office. And it is by and large not the only perpetrator; harassment from students and professors, hard to reach classrooms and offices, elevators unnecessarily crowded by people without mobility issues and under-funded accommodation services mean that disabled students at SCC can’t get the things they need to be successful at school. 

Barber, a student whose accommodations include extra testing time, reserved seats, and unrestricted eating in class acknowledges that the services will never be perfect, but that they are nowhere near good enough. “…every single day I’m at school I find more and more struggles awaiting me, particularly with my more recent need to use a walker during school and work as my condition gets worse. I go to Seattle Central knowing I won’t be able to ask for half of the services I really and truly need, either because of the bureaucracy and hoop-jumping involved or the simple lack of resources,” Barber says. “And I just…make do. I don’t have a choice. A common saying of mine is ‘It’s fine. It’s not fine, but it’s fine.’”

That is a philosophy that many disabled students at SCC have had to adopt in order to survive. In my case, I was bounced around from the administration to the Disability Services Office to HR, with no one knowing what to do with me, how to help me, or even if helping me was legal. I myself live with a relatively uncommon seizure disorder, but have similar symptoms to epilepsy, which 1 in 26 people will develop in their lifetime according to the Epilepsy Foundation. “[Getting accommodations] really depended on the teacher and if they were willing to go through with my accommodations, which most weren’t. In that case, I had to get the DSS involved,” says Mary Prentice, a former SCC student, now at UW Bothell. “As an epileptic student, I would fall over and I hated when they would call 911, because there is nothing the hospital can do for me except take my money. They need to change their protocol and have it be more flexible for epileptic students.”

You would think that a community college in a large city would be provided with funding to accommodate such a common disorder, or at least one medical professional on campus to attend to minor incidents without putting students in crippling debt from hospital visits for a twisted ankle, but you would be wrong. I have had to rely on tentative friendships with the security team and local EMTs to avoid hundreds of dollars worth of fruitless ambulance rides from SCC to a hospital. Seattle Central has no medical staff on campus, and Tracy Yorker, a SCC Security Officer with over twenty years of experience in the field, has expressed her concerns about this lack of precaution, but stays adamant that the department does what they can with what they have. “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish and we do our best.” 

So where do these issues stem from? Why isn’t there enough help to go around? And where does the money that we so sorely need come from? Roberto Bonaccorso, SCC’s Communications Director, allowed for some clarity. “The State Board of Community and Technical Colleges has for many years allotted earmark funds specifically for Disability Services,” Bonaccorso states. “However, that covers only a fraction of the actual need. The district campuses individually supplement that funding with general operating funds. Central’s budget is funded at around $574K, inclusive of the $47K earmark funding.” When I saw this number, my stomach dropped. This means that a community college with over 7,000 full time students is delegated 47,000 dollars for disability services every year. Evidently, that is not enough, because it must be supplemented with general funds as well. In fact, it doesn’t even compare to the budgets of public, non-community colleges in Washington state. 

Cebrina Chavez, director of the Disabilities Services Office, helped shed some light on the situation as well. This quarter, Chavez was expecting an influx of staff members for her department, but that never happened, so she has been manning the reception desk all of the first week of the quarter. Despite funding shortages, Chavez says she is proud of what the office has accomplished. “Based on what we are able to provide, I feel good about the level of service and advocacy that we offer. We are a relatively small office but we currently offer advocacy, student and faculty support, a test proctoring center, sign language interpretation, alternative text and auxiliary aids as well as accommodation planning and provision.” However, the only people who feel the blow of funding shortages more than disabled students are the employees in her department. “…the allocation from the state covers only a fraction of the fiscal need. Colleges then need to come up with the difference in funding needed to support accommodation provision,” she says. On a more positive note, the office was planning a move to the first floor during the coming winter break between quarters, much to the relief of many of the school’s disabled students, but that has been delayed due to the novel Coronavirus. The office would have swapped spaces with the Multicultural Services office, and thus would have relocated to BE 1103. The office also offers training and education around accessibility and universal design for staff and faculty during development days and departmental meetings.

So what do we do? This: lack of funding, employees, ethics training and inaccessibility is and has been unacceptable, and illustrates the institutional ableism that plagues our district and hell, this country. Chavez believes that social change through painstaking demonstration and protest has been done before, so it can be done again. “In the past, students have gone to Olympia to share concerns and petition for additional funding. Students sharing their concerns can make a huge difference on campus as well. For example, the ramp to the Atrium was a student-led initiative on campus. Student feedback helped to get funding set up for this project.” Legislative activism is indeed an avenue of possibility, though fraught with political hurdles and bureaucratic red tape. 

According to Barber, the solution is right in front of our faces. “Make the funding and resource allocation transparent to the students who are receiving it. Open up a dialogue with them. Open dialogues between faculty and staff and students…There just [needs] to be more conversation.” 

The level of ignorance about how much the Disability Service can’t provide for its students is appalling, and the fact that the current staff working on the issue have nothing to do with the discrepancies is somehow worse. It’s not that the Disability Office is doing a bad job; they are doing the best they can with what they have. And what they have is too little, too late. When a public institution has to scramble for money to provide a receptionist for their Disability Services office, AND scrounge money from within the rest of the budget just to provide mediocre accommodations to hundreds of students, something is very, very wrong. 

My instructors were all shocked to find out that I am only left with the option of trying my damnedest to convince EMTs to not take me to the hospital. It seems Barber has had a similar experience. “I don’t get to talk to my teachers about the big picture. I don’t know what they’re going through just as much as they don’t know about me. That needs to change.”

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